How to plan the Perfect Murder
Two men meet by chance on a long, overnight, train journey.
Wealthy, dissolute, needy, alcoholic Charles Bruno is classically and dysfunctionally Oedipal. He hates his father, and is unusually close to his mother who is doting and overindulgent. Bruno has achieved nothing in his life, and is progressively wasting it, surrendering to infantile ragings and sulkings, unable to take responsibility for himself. He is nevertheless a man of high intelligence, possessed of a curious puppydoggish charm, with an odd sort of compulsive charisma which can overpower seemingly stronger characters.
Guy Haines is his (seemingly) polar opposite. He is a rising star in the world of architecture. A man of vision in his field, he is creative, dynamic, self-motivated, hard-working, innovative and highly ambitious. He is clarity and light to Bruno’s muddy, confused formlessness. However, Guy does have one seemingly fatal mistake in his past – an early marriage to a chaotic, feckless and unsuitable woman. The reason for Guy’s presence on the train is he is travelling to Metcalf in order to insist that Miriam gives him the divorce he has been after for so long, and which she is withholding. And this despite the fact that the marriage ended due to her infidelities. Guy is intending to marry his true soulmate, Anne, a woman who is his own source of lightness – self-motivated, warm, creative, balanced and intelligent. She embodies the clarity, reason and intelligence he aspires to develop still further in himself.
So what could two such dissimilar men find to connect them together, following a passing-the-time conversation on a long journey?
Bruno unveils a fantasy, a seemingly offensive and ridiculous idea – the two men, who are thrown together by chance, unknown to each other, unlikely to ever meet again, should commit the perfect, because motiveless, murder for each other. Bruno will kill Miriam; Guy, Bruno’s father. Now of course upright, cerebral, reasoning, Plato-reading Guy recognises that Bruno is a little deranged, and quite pathetic………….
Clearly things are going to happen, and the central relationship in the book will be that between the two diametrically opposed men, one `good’ one `bad’, one strong and one weak. And it is the subtly insidious changeover between the two, how the weak becomes strong, and the strong weakened. Highsmith is always fascinatingly deeply delving into dark psychology, into the shadow self, and is terrific on sabotaged lives, particularly where the sabotage is self administered.
She sets up from the start the reader to be on the side of the upright Guy, who is always referred to in narration by his first name, just as in the third person narration sociopath Bruno is distanced from us, the reader, by using his surname.
What I particularly like about Patricia Highsmith’s take on characters who are dysfunctional, or journeying to become so, is that not only is she excellent in winding up the tension higher and higher, but she makes the reader collude in deviant and aberrant behaviour. Even in Strangers on a Train the reader may find that they want one of the murderers to get away with their horrible crime. In some ways `Strangers’ almost acts as a precursor to her later series with a wonderfully charming plausible villain – Tom Ripley, in the Ripley series of books. What is dreadful is that we want Ripley to succeed, she makes us party to events, and makes us identify with Ripley. In `Strangers’, Bruno, the sociopath, is too much of a loser for that to happen, we sit inside Guy’s head as he steadily departs from his upright path and comes closer and closer to inhabiting `Bruno world’
It took me some time to finish this book – my hands were sweating too much, and I was feeling too nauseous and anxious. As this was a re-read, I knew what was going to happen. It’s Highsmith’s skill that it is the why and the how of the story which work so well , not only the `what happens next and in the end’ .
And I had at some point seen the loosely related Hitchcock film – much was changed – starring Farley Granger as Guy – turned into a tennis player – and Robert Walker as Bruno. And Hitch’s ending had nothing to do with Highsmith’s! Hitch, unusually, made a much more saccharine film than Highsmith’s uncomfortably disturbing walk in the shadows